Wilf Bond (Connolly), his wife Cissy Robson (Collins), and their friend Reginald Paget (Courtenay) are former opera singers living in a home for retired musicians. They used to perform together as members of a quartet, and they have stayed tight friends. They make quite a team: Where Paget is restrained and proper, Bond is witty, randy, and outgoing. However, the charming Cissy is unfortunately losing her memory to senility.
Every year the home presents a gala to celebrate Verdi’s birthday. The institution’s finances are shaky, and this year’s event needs to be even more financially successful than usual to keep the house open. Under the overbearing direction of Cedric Livingston (Gambon), many of the house’s residents are busy rehearsing their performances. Word goes around the house that they are about to get a new resident, a former star. It turns out to be Jean Horton (Smith), the fourth member of the quartet. She had once been Paget’s lover, as well as, briefly, his wife. He obviously still has very strong feelings for her, but they are not all pleasant. She is pleased to see him, but still cold and distant. Horton had been the one to break up the quartet, resulting in bad feelings in every direction. When the three suggest getting back together to play the gala, Horton is dead set against it – at least at first.
This film is Dustin Hoffman’s first directorial outing since 1978’s underappreciated Straight Time (the direction of which Hoffman – who also starred – eventually ceded to Ulu Grosbard). Hoffman does right by Quartet, a whimsical comedy/drama. He directs the picture sure-handedly, going after no great meaning or depth, but hitting all the appropriate marks quite sweetly on the way. Based on a stage play by Ronald Harwood, who adapted the script, the direction opens the film up but never quite transcends the theatrical sensibility.
Hoffman allows his A-team of actors the leisure and breathing space to do their best. The cast features Courtenay, whose previous credits include Billy Liar, King Rat, Doctor Zhivago, and The Dresser, and Collins, who has won all kinds of awards and done extensive work in film, on the stage, and for TV. (Her best-known role may well be in the stage and film versions of Shirley Valentine, which earned her a Tony award and an Oscar nomination, respectively.) Billy Connolly and Maggie Smith, both excellent, really need no introduction.
This is a worthy entry into that drama/comedy/romance hybrid genre of ensemble-acted older-retired-Brits made popular by 2011’s The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. Charming, funny, and sentimental, the film is exactly what you expect it to be, but very satisfying in achieving that goal. The end credits are especially entertaining, as they highlight prior stage performances, orchestra gigs, and television work done by the cast.